The readers of this column have long suffered from having to hear about the Long family vacations all around the United States. You’ve heard about our trip to the southwest in 1999, our visit to Gettysburg and New York City in 2000, our trip to the Pacific northwest, including British Columbia, in 2001, our visit to Washington DC, Williamsburg, and the North Carolina/Great Smoky Mountains in 2002. From there, we spent our 2003 vacation driving all over Wyoming, including visits to Yellowstone NP, the Grand Tetons, Custer National Battlefield in Montana, and Mt. Rushmore and Badlands NP in South Dakota. We toured New England last year, from the shores of Connecticut to Acadia NP in Maine, with a great stay in Boston in between.
This year, because Adam has just turned 18 and is entering his final year of high school, we were looking at, perhaps, our last family summer vacation together. I hope that’s not the case, because these have been such memorable and special times for our family, but as we know, life charges forward, and our oldest son is headed for college next year. So… we did what most parents do when faced with such a dilemma; we headed for Southern California!
Planning this trip was not easy, because there is nothing inexpensive about Southern California. But there are some trusted sources that I have used for years with great success in finding great deals, and this trip was no different. Frommer; the Rough Guide, and AAA travel guides are all great resources when you want to find the best deals.
Here was the agenda: we wanted to spend four nights in Los Angeles; then three nights in San Diego; then, heading back north, two nights in Santa Barbara, one night in Big Sur, and then on to my Mom’s home in the San Francisco Bay area for a couple of nights before returning back to God’s country, which, in case you aren’t aware, is Fort Wayne, Indiana.
We flew into Los Angeles on a direct flight from Indy on ATA. Yes, they still fly, despite their going bankrupt, being sold to Southwest Airlines, and then basically being gutted. ATA flies a regular flight to Los Angeles, and then on to Honolulu. It was cheap, easy, and hassle-free. We rented a car, and headed out into tinsel town, as L.A. has always been called.
So where do you go first? Well, when in celebrityville, you head for their part of town, so the Longs toted their weary bodies right over to Beverly Hills, parked the car, and walked around Rodeo Drive, perhaps the ritziest, most expensive shopping district in the entire country. Needless to say, we bought nothing, but it was great fun, and was a perfect lead-in to our next destination, Hollywood.
This is the quintessential tourist trap of all time, yet a must-see when visiting L.A. But do it in the daytime, when the sights are best, and the streets are safest. We walked up and down Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood’s main drag. The street’s most famous attribute is the “Walk of Stars,” where every major celebrity from Garbo, Gable, and Bogie to Lassie, Tom Hanks and Nicole Kidman has their name emblazoned on a gold star embedded in the sidewalk. The Kodak Theater is located here, where the Academy Awards are held each year. And the famous Hollywood sign sits atop the hills above Sunset Blvd. But the most famous symbol of this fun, tacky place is Grauman’s Chinese Theater. It is here that the handprints and footprints of the motion picture industry’s most famous stars are found. It is amazing how tiny some of our biggest stars were. The hand and footprints of Lana Turner were like those of a child. She couldn’t have been much taller than five feet. In fact, most of the older stars’ hand and foot prints were on the smallish side, the lone exception being Jimmy Stewart, who was all of about six feet tall. For the record, Tom Cruise is only 5’7″, Dustin Hoffman about 5’5″, with Al Pacino somewhere in between. Not much has changed, has it?
The best part of Hollywood, though, was taking the tacky but fun “Tour of the Star’s Homes.” There are several companies to choose from, and most begin and end their runs at the Chinese Theater. They are all about the same, but whichever you choose, take the two-hour tour, which is more than enough.
Hollywood is right up against some substantial hills, and most of the side streets are residential, and surprisingly nice. It doesn’t take long before you are winding around high, narrow streets with beautiful views. During the tour, we were shown the homes of Tom Cruise (the largest and most private), Toby McGwire, Keanu Reeves, Leonardo DiCaprio (the most spectacular, by the way), Barbara Streisand, Courtney Cox, Gene Hackman (the simplest and most open), Gene Kelly, Ellen Degeneres, Bob Barker, and many others. The most interesting moment came when our bus had to squeeze past moving vans that were busy emptying the home of Halle Berry. Two men were struggling to put a huge gumball machine into the van as we edged past. No sign of Halle, but then, she was likely inside avoiding paparazzi like us.
From here, we headed to our hotel, which was straight west about ten miles, in Santa Monica. This city is right on the ocean, surrounded by Los Angeles, and boasts the largest and broadest beaches in southern California. We were lucky to find a great place just north of Venice Beach, along Main Street, which is the best location for shopping and restaurants in the area. The Sea Shore Motel was one of Frommer’s finds, which had several new suites that gave Melissa and I a separate room from the boys, beds for all, a new kitchen and nice back deck. All for about $100 per night less than anything else we could find. Frommer called it the best deal in the city, and he wasn’t kidding. Oh, and we were just two blocks from the beach.
Santa Monica and Venice share a boardwalk/sidewalk which runs for miles, and carries on it every type of person found in L.A., especially in Venice. There is an endless parade of runners, bicyclists, skateboarders, roller skaters, and power walkers. Everyone, it seems, is trying to keep in shape out in Lala land. The beach itself is huge, and had wonderful waves on which to belly board. My son Erik and I bought two boards for about $16 total, and spent many hours riding the waves. Great fun.
But I digress; Back to the vacation. The second day of our trip was a bit more structured, but great fun. We headed back to Hollywood, to the last of the great working film studios, Paramount Pictures. You have to make a reservation to get a tour, but we only made it the day before. It cost us $140, but was worth every penny. The tour group we were in had only 8 people, and there were very few groups allowed onto the studio grounds. The studio has an amazing history, going all the way back to the silent film era. But its most famous owners were Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, who were far more influential in the TV and movie business than people realize. Many, many famous TV shows were filmed here, as were numerous movies.
There were several current TV shows in production as we walked around the grounds, but the most interesting of all the ongoing operations was the tomb and catacombs set for the upcoming Mission Impossible 3. This set was absolutely fantastic. The scene is supposed to take place below the Vatican, and the elaborate work going into this project has to be seen to be believed. Special artists painting frescos, sculptors creating replicas of great artwork, caves, tombs, etc. At the time, Tom Cruise was in Italy, shooting scenes on location, but the scenes in the catacombs will be shot in Hollywood.
The cost and effort that goes into a big budget movie is stunning, and makes you appreciate the final product. I would highly recommend this tour; you won’t find anything comparable in Hollywood.
From here, we headed for the Burbank area, which was about ten miles away. Melissa and Adam went to the taping of the Jay Leno show. Because the minimum age to sit in the audience is 16, and Erik, our youngest, is only 13, Erik and I went to Universal City theme park instead. I think we got the better deal, though Melissa and Adam had a fantastic time. Universal City’s outer section is free to enter, and your first encounter is a maze of walking streets with nothing but massive screen TVs, huge animated characters hanging off of buildings, such as King Kong, tons of first rate shops, numerous restaurants, arcades, etc., etc. It is almost overwhelming, and like nothing I’ve seen before. After a five-minute walk or so, you arrive at the gates of the theme park, which is definitely NOT free. However, because we were there around 3PM, and had about four and a half hours, we purchased a late afternoon “front of the line” pass, which took us from a 45 minute wait at most of the rides and shows to at most, a 3 minute wait. It cost us an additional $25 dollars each, but was well worth it.
Erik and I hit all the great rides about twice, and enjoyed several great shows, including an intense, simulated chemical warehouse fire from the movie “Backdraft.” The entire park is thematically set around Universal Pictures movies and TV shows. The park has two levels; the first is atop the small mountain on which the upper park sits; the second level is down by Universal Pictures’ actual studios, and requires taking a series of long escalator rides to access it. We had a great time.
Melissa and Adam enjoyed Jay Leno as well, and were treated to an outdoor concert at the end of the show by the musical guest, Jack Johnson. Jay apparently rode to the studio on his Harley, came to warm up the audience before the show in his jeans and rolled up shirt, and was hilarious. They have laugh signs for his standup act, but the audience already likes him by the time the show starts taping, so it’s easy to get into his daily monologue.
OK, that’s enough for now. Next issue, we’ll finish up quickly with L.A., and then move on to San Diego, and our visit to Tijuana, before taking you north to Santa Barbara, Hearst Castle, and Big Sur.
By the way, in case you were wondering, this was a great vacation!
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